Re-posted From Tumblr: Thoughts on Fandom and Fanfic Culture (and Why I’m Growing Tired Of It)

Every once in a while, I think I’m going to re-post here some of the better posts I’ve made on my Tumblr. I’d like to make this my main place for media-analysis at this point (that I’m not getting paid to do for some other site, of course), but sometimes I write stuff that’s somewhat specific to Tumblr’s community and its issues, but which is still worth showcasing here. Here’s something I wrote a few weeks ago on fanfiction/fandom “culture” and my history of engagement with it. The original post is here.

So I was browsing Tumblr when I came across another post about how “fanfiction is important.” These are all over the place on this site, where people want to coordinate their fun fan activities with more serious discussion of social justice, to mobilize the socially-conscious shipper or whatever. This particular one was about why fanfiction is called “transformative works” (as in the name of the group that runs Archive Of Our Own). Mostly it was the same-ol’, same-ol’, but one line really struck me, and crystallized a lot of what frustrates about me about this discussion, and “fandom culture” in general:

“A transformative work doesn’t actually transform the original media it is based off of (because the original medium exists in a fixed state and cannot be literally changed by fans unless the canon creators allow it to be so)”

Actually, the original media exists in a fixed state regardless of what creators add to it later. You can choose to ignore parts of the “canon” as much as you can stuff the fans create. I can choose to watch the first and third seasons of Black Butler and ignore the second for being shippy, character-derailing, unnecessary garbage. I can enjoy the first season of Glee and ignore how crappy it got after that. People enjoy the original series of Star Wars films while ignoring the prequels, enjoy a lot of adaptations while ignoring the original works, and so on. Fiction is fiction; none of its real, and you’re always free to decide which ones you “accept” (whatever this means) or not.

But I found it interesting that this came up in a post attempting to argue that what the fans contributed was just as good as what the “official creators” contributed. It gets at something that’s long bothered me about “fandom culture” but which I couldn’t articulate until now: as much as fandom likes to pretend it’s “transformative”, it actually puts the creator and “canon” on a pedestal, far far more than most of the “mainstream media analysis” it’s criticizing does.

In every fandom I’ve been in, there’s always an implicit or explicit hierarchy between “canon” and “non-canon”, between “intended” and “not intended”, between “in-character” and “out-of-character” (or OOC). Now, of course, especially with that last one, deviation from the original’s characterization, worldbuilding, etc. is often unintentional, and reflective of poor writing or unfamiliarity with the material. But I think it’s interesting that the people who have the writing talent to take characters/worldbuilding/whatever in their own direction–and do just that in their fanworks–never own it!

When a fan of a “non-canon” ship gets in an argument with a “canon” one, and the latter uses that against them, the response is invariably “Nuh-uh! It totally hints at it! Look at when he stared at him and blushed that one time!” It’s never “Who cares? Sure, they aren’t DTF in the original, but the relationship they do have is interesting enough and I think it would be cool to explore if it were romantic.” Which surprises me, since that latter explanation is much closer to why I like a lot of the “non-canon” pairings I do. I read as much Roy/Ed as I do pretty much entirely due to what fanfic writers have made them out to be; I don’t see anything suggesting that they’re into each other in any version of Fullmetal Alchemist. (Really: my older posts suggesting otherwise were me trying to get myself to believe what everyone in the fandom was telling me.) It’s that “what if?” that keeps me coming back to fanfic. I don’t need something that the original work already gives me.

That’s actually a pretty cool thing. It’s a huge credit to the talented, creative fanfic writers I’ve had the pleasure to read stuff by that they’ve created such believable and dynamic relationships when there wasn’t anything to work with (at least, not in a romantic/sexual sense) in the original text. But rather than take that credit, they continue to pin everything on the original creator, and what they took out of their work–continue to defer to what TVTropes has defined as “Word of God” as though it actually does come from a god (but more on that in a bit). That attitude is so deeply embedded in fan culture–from people pressing actors at convention panels for their opinions on “non-canon” ships to, hell, the use of the word “canon” in the first place (another thing that comes from religion)–that of course it affects fanfiction.

But I think it hinders it, too, because here’s another thing: largely due to this attitude among fanfic writers, I don’t think fanfic is really all that “transformative” or (as I’m seeing increasingly mentioned in these pro-fanfiction posts) “Death of the Author”. And part of that is because the only ways they’ll let themselves defy the Author is in smaller ways that don’t truly create a new thing that can stand on even ground with the original. Let me explain.

When fanfic does attempt to actually create something new and dispense with authorial intent, the thing is I never see them doing anything to truly challenge the original narrative, or to actually transform it in any substantive way. Usually, it just fills in stuff that wasn’t explored in the original narrative (and usually for a reason), or it goes on about the characters’ relationships. At best, it might be “transformative” in the sense of making some white characters into people of color, of making straight cis characters queer–of diversifying the cast. And while that’s certainly a good thing, it doesn’t really engage with the work’s actual message about those issues, with its gender/queer/racial/etc. politics, from what I’ve seen. The themes are generally considered the most important part of a fictional work, and make up the cornerstone of both academics’ and professional critics’ media analyses, but they’re completely absent from “transformative” fanfiction.

For all Death Note fanfic writers may like to pretend that shipping L and Light together is “progressive”, I never see anyone challenging the really toxic attitudes about women coiled around that show like a snake. For all the criticism that Firefly gets for having a Chinese-inspired setting but no Chinese characters, I’ve never seen a fanfic writer attempt to “explore the world” more by telling us about those characters (even though fanfic in particular would be ideal for this project). There’s so much analysis back and forth about what Evangelion means and whether that’s good or bad, but you’d never know that from the fanfic that’s just fluffy romances between Shinji and Kaworu/Asuka/whomever. Fanfic is “exploratory”, but I’ve never seen any of it dig down into the real meat of the show–just skim the surface, and branch that out into other possible surfaces.

Okay, I have, but it wasn’t the stuff that gets published for free on and AO3. It’s the “literary” fanfic that you see get published in bookstores: Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, John Gardner’s Grendel, etc. And there’s a reason that that stuff is taken more seriously by critics and scholars, as much as fanfic writers like to pretend otherwise. (Note that the stuff that gets published that fits more of what you find on fanfic sites–your Pride and Prejudice sequels, for instance–doesn’t get those serious literary discussions around it.)

The crux of it is that fanfiction–and a lot of fandom culture around it–deals with their favorite fiction as parallel universes, as their own worlds they want to step into and play around in. But those “literary” derivative-works–and most of the literary criticism that “fandom” culture disdains as snobbish–deals with fiction as a text, as a message. And it’s that engagement with fiction-as-text that allows for Death of the Author as a concept, that puts the readers on even keels with the writers, because it recognizes authors as imperfect human beings. Treating their creations as separate worlds, though, by definition raises authors to the level of godlike beings.

And that’s why I think, as much as fanfic likes to phrase itself as being about “Death of the Author”, “fandom” ultimately is more worshipful and mindful of creators than even the stuffiest critics are. Even critics who fundamentally reject Death of the Author don’t put creators on such pedestals, and you really can’t if you want to be as analytical and “transformative” as a lot of fandom culture claims to be.

But that’s all fine if fanfic is primarily about escapism, about letting yourself go into these inviting fictional worlds the authors have created for you. That’s what it is for me–a separate endeavor from the analysis I do in my reviews and my academic work. I still love reading and writing fanfic, I still love roleplaying. But I don’t take it seriously (or at least, no more than I do all my writing), because that kind of engagement with fiction just isn’t as interesting to me.